Feature: The Bizarre History of Pokémon Technology
Posted by Stephen Kelly
Go Go Gadget Pokémon
Ever since the Game Boy link cable connected rival trainers together in Pokémon Red and Blue, the famed monster-catching franchise has been fascinated with novel technology. Pick an eccentric doodad at random from Nintendo's library of experiments and you're certain to find a guinea Tepig tagging along to make sure it's safe for mass consumption. Battling other players was a no-brainer, but exchanging data via trades was largely uncharted territory back in the early '90s and blazed a trail for years to come.
The backwards compatibility of Gold and Silver evolved into global trading centres via the internet, and the feature list has been growing exponentially all the while. Infra-red communication, Nintendo 64 transfer paks, Game Boy printers, e-cards, and a host of other gizmos have contributed to this storied chronicle of oddball innovation. Upcoming DS title Pokémon Black and White 2 looks to be stuffed with more catch-'em-all technology than a human should safely enjoy, which makes this a logical time to settle down and consider some of the confounding contraptions that Nintendo has dreamt up.
Digital pets are only one step behind Furbies on the satanic meter, as anyone who has endured the childhood cycle of love, hatred, and bitter rejection can attest. The Pokémon Pikachu of 1998 had three key differences going for it: a pedometer tallied every real-life step taken, the virtual pal wouldn't beg for food, and... well, “Pokémon” and “Pikachu” were right there in the title. Sales sky-rocketed as thousands of fans, eager to care for a pocket monster of their own, strapped on the handheld device or – just as likely — shook it ferociously to simulate a brisk jog or two. This generated “watts” by the dozen, which Pikachu gladly accepted in exchange for cute little animations for you to smile over.
The new and improved Pokémon Pikachu 2 replaced the black and white LED screen with a full colour display and used the sorcery of infra-red technology to send Pokémon Gold and Silver some nifty items. As the unofficial conclusion to this trilogy, a Pokéwalker was included in remakes HeartGold and SoulSilver to bring cheery pedometers into the modern day. You've got to hand it to Nintendo; it looks out for your health.
In this Nintendo 64 cult “classic”, Pikachu returns. Or perhaps Pikachu Strikes Back would be more appropriate. While we're on the Star Wars title kick, let's just call it Revenge of the Pikachu and be done with it. Interacting directly with everyone's favourite electric mouse was a dream shared by millions, and thanks to Nintendo's Voice Recognition Unit (VRU), that dream became reality — in theory. Extending from one of the controller ports, the microphone was topped with a fuzzy yellow ball like an unappealing scoop of Styrofoam ice cream. This is the only product outside of Japan to make use of the VRU; you can probably guess why.
The idea was to guide Pikachu through his daily routine using a set of voice commands, but the dear little fellow's inability to distinguish between the phrases “eat it” and “Magnemite” curdled away every last drop of charm. Mini-games became one-sided shouting matches, whether Pikachu was babysitting fellow Pokémon, swinging at a piñata or toddling through any number of simple tasks. Incredibly rumours of a 3DS remake still persist, proving once and for all that people are nuts.
During Nintendo's now-defunct SpaceWorld trade show in 2000, the anomaly known as Meowth's Party blinked into existence. As a tech demo for the GameCube, it ran alongside the likes of Metroid Prime and that ultimately misleading battle between Link and Ganondorf. Spectacularly goofy music blared as Meowth danced across the stage for a crowd of super psyched Pokémon, jamming on his electric guitar start to finish. A player-controlled camera proved that this fever dream was based on a real-time engine, which may have been necessary considering the sea of Squirtles and Geodudes cheering their maniacal rock star on. The loony musical number seems to have originated in 1999 as an ending theme to the Japanese Pokémon anime, so it's possible the assets happened to be lying around as SpaceWorld deadlines loomed.
Meowth may have failed in his scheme to pop the rhythm game bubble before it began, but the world hadn't seen the last of his escapades just yet. GameCube release Pokémon Channel, a spiritual successor of sorts to Hey You, Pikachu!, featured a music video based on the demo, and Meowth appeared with his bright red guitar as a Super Smash Bros. Melee trophy. It's not a glamorous life, living vicariously through more popular games, but it beats getting pummelled in every episode of a children's cartoon.
Instantly conjuring memories of Mario Teaches Typing and Typing of the Dead, the Pokémon series jumped into the edutainment space with this recent release on DS, Learn with Pokémon: Typing Adventure. While a handheld typing trainer may sound like madness, Nintendo has sought to solve the problem with a specialised wireless keyboard that taps into the game card via Bluetooth. By propping the DS on an equally unique stand and lying the keyboard flat on the surface of your choice, clacking away like an above average student of Mavis Beacon should be second nature.
The software is aimed at children, but with words like “Zoroark” floating around, even fast-fingered veterans can get thrown off. Learning with Pokémon is an offer most kids would jump at, even if the “learning” part is a means to an ends. Of course, rather than educational value or innovative technology, Typing Adventure will be remembered for naming a character Paige Down. Bravo, Nintendo localisation. Bravo.
3DS is a Swiss army knife of Nintendo gadgetry just waiting for some Pokémon to show up and start the party, and that's exactly what's happening. Now on eShop, Pokémon: Dream Radar takes advantage of the camera, 3D settings, gyroscopic controls, augmented reality and data transfer features. More machine now than game, this downloadable app is essentially Face Raiders without the recurring nightmares, instead populating every day surroundings with the wispy forms of Pokémon. You' have to tilt and rotate the 3DS in dramatic fashion to track and capture your quarry, which — at the very least — should prove for an entertaining spectator sport.
The small handful of Pokémon available can be ported directly over to Black and White 2's game cart, including a trio of legendary creatures and their ultra special Therian Formes. A scant few Pokémon can be dropped right into the past DS RPGs as well, continuing the backwards compatible trend pioneered in Gold and Silver. Covered head to toe in gimmicks and technology but zeroing in on catching 'em all, Dream Radar can perhaps be considered a kind of silly, lovable parody of the entire series.
Nintendo hasn't let up on its mad science experiments for a moment, and as long as the Pokémon franchise still stands tall, it probably never will. What's shocking is all the material that isn't covered in the above paragraphs; Pokémon Black and White 2's complex spider web of online features could fill an article on its own. With Wii U on the horizon, this wild ride could spiral into an unparalleled era of creativity and weirdness, which is an exciting – if scary — thought. In the meantime, let's patiently cross our fingers and hope that, wherever he is, Meowth is living a happy and fulfilling life.